COLONIA LEBARON, Mexico (AP) — Family and friends prepared to bury on Saturday the last victim of a cartel ambush that killed nine American women and children from a community in northern Mexico where having gangsters in their midst has long been a fact of life.
In the attack Monday, Christina Langford Johnson jumped out of her vehicle and waved her hands to show she was no threat to the attackers and was shot twice in the heart, community members say. Her daughter Faith Marie Johnson, 7 months old, was found unharmed in her car seat.
Her burial ceremony, the third in as many days, culminates an outpouring of grief in the closely knit community with family ties in two Mexican states and across the border in many western U.S. states.
What had been a largely peaceful existence in a fertile valley ringed by rugged mountains and desert scrub about 70 miles (112 kilometers) from the border with Arizona became increasingly dangerous in recent years. Cartels exerted their power and battled each other in a region that is a drug smuggling hotbed.
La Mora, a hamlet of about 300 people established decades ago in Sonora state by their Mormon ancestors, and where residents raise cattle and cultivate pomegranates and other crops, is forever changed by the killings.
The attacked occurred as the women traveled with their children to visit relatives. Many community members wondering whether they should stay or flee the cartel presence, a constant both there and in the sibling community of Colonia LeBaron on the other side of the mountains in Chihuahua state.
Lenzo Widmar, a 43-year-old artist and carpenter from LeBaron living in Galeana, a town just to the north, said that after the 2009 murder of community member and anti-crime activist Benjamín LeBarón, residents persuaded the government to set up a federal police base there.
But everyone knows there are gangsters living among and interacting with society, buying from local shops, getting their cars fixed and the like. Many are known, Widmar said — people they went to school with, worked construction jobs with, before they went bad.
When he runs into them he’ll often shake their hands even though it makes for an awkward encounter.
“It’s sad because as a society we should not sell to them, we should shun them. But I guess we’re not on that level yet,” Widmar said. “And on the same hand it’s almost like there’s people who’ve been involved in the cartels but they probably haven’t killed people, they’re probably just drug pushers or something like that.”
few years ago, Widmar heard screams from across the road at a house he knew was occupied by the cartel. Sneaking over, he saw people beating someone tied to a post with a bag over his head.
He called the local police, who never came, and then federal police, who arrived but by then the gangsters had taken off with the young victim, apparently tipped off by local cops.
Later he heard through the small-town rumor mill who the young man was, and much later still he saw him hitchhiking on the road, picked him up and talked to him about the incident.
“La Mora hasn’t lived the experience as much as we have here” in LeBaron, Widmar said. “But I believe they’re strong and I highly doubt they’re going to up and run from such a thing.”
Julián LeBarón, brother to the slain activist Benjamín, said people regularly run across men with guns who stop them on the road and ask where they’re going, sometimes offering to help.
“It’s almost like it’s so integrated in our community that everybody buys and sells or deals with these people on different levels,” LeBarón said.
This side of the mountains, in Chihuahua, is said to be under the thumb of a Juarez cartel-aligned gang known as La Linea. On the other side, around La Mora, it’s the Sinaloa cartel of convicted drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who’s serving life in a Colorado maximum-security prison.
Multiple people said there’s a tendency for members in the two communities to view the cartel in their own area as “the good guys,” who can be tolerated, and those on the other side as the bad ones, and vice versa. It’s a mentality that David Langford of La Mora excoriated this week at the funeral for his wife, Dawna, and young sons Trevor and Rogan, who were killed in the attack.
“I know there’s been an argument over which ‘sicas’ (short for ‘sicarios,’ or cartel assassins) are the worst ones and which ‘sicas’ caused the problem. To me there’s not a winner in that argument,” Langford said. “There’s no good ‘sicas.’ This is because of having a ‘sica’ problem.”
“I think he said it really clear. … These people are murderers and if we tolerate crime in the hopes that it’s not going to happen to us, eventually it will,” LeBarón said.
“Ultimately the reason why we have criminals committing murder everywhere is because they get away with it,” he continued. “They get away with it legally, but they also get away with it socially, because we’ve coexisted with ‘sicarios’ for over a decade.”
On Friday, the bodies of Rhonita Miller and four of her children were brought from La Mora to Colonia LeBaron by a convoy of pickup trucks and SUVS that followed the same dirt-and-rock mountainous road where they were killed.
Many residents of the two communities that lie a five-hour, bone-jarring drive apart are related. They are not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Simple wooden coffins arrived at the cemetery east of Colonia LeBaron off a rural road flanked by cotton fields and were lowered into three graves under white tents.
Kenny Miller, Rhonita Miller’s father-in-law, said he hopes their deaths can spotlight the thousands of Mexicans mourning missing and dead loved ones amid record-setting homicide levels.
“I would like this to be used for people who have no voice,” Miller said, “and I think ‘Nita’ would approve wholeheartedly.”